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How Israeli right lays claim to religion

The recently adopted nationality law is only the latest example of a long string of efforts to exploit and pressure Israelis by linking political views to religious beliefs.
Jewish worshippers take part in Slichot, a prayer in which Jews offer repentance and ask God to forgive their sins, ahead of Yom Kippur, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City September 16, 2018. Picture taken September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad - RC14F980CC00

Since its inception at the start of the 20th century, Israel’s kibbutz movement has symbolized the pioneers’ revolt against Jewish tradition and religion. For most kibbutzim (communal farms), Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when religious, traditional and even secular Jews fast and flock to Israel’s synagogues, was just another day.

This week, however, as Israelis marked Yom Kippur on Sept. 18, dozens of kibbutzim throughout the country held prayer services for the holiest day of the Jewish year. The prayers were part of an initiative by Panim El Panim (Hebrew for “face-to-face”), an organization whose goal as helping to “quench the growing thirst among the Jews of Israel for a deeper understanding of identity and purpose … and to deepen the connection between all parts of the nation.” Its Hebrew-language web site calls on kibbutz members to take part in a “unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience” and to mark “a different, special Yom Kippur along with all the people of Israel.”

According to its site, the organization operates throughout the country, in high schools and colleges, on military bases, in kibbutzim and collective farms (moshavim). It runs programs in over 70 non-religious high schools and 45 army bases and meets annually with some 30,000 students.

“The fact is that today, more people want to hook up with Judaism and family tradition,” explained the organization’s deputy director Yair Gantz in an interview two years ago with Channel 7, a media outlet of the religious right. In the name of linking them to “Judaism and tradition,” the organization and others like it link secular Israeli Jews to Jewish religion and beliefs.

Panim El Panim is headed by, among others, Col. (res.) Geva Rapp and Rabbi Eli Edler, both of Machon Meir, an institute of Jewish studies specifically geared to non-religious Jews seeking to deepen their ties to Judaism. Its declared aim is to spread the word of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the spiritual father of the Gush Emunim settlement movement and of modern messianic Judaism.

A survey conducted by Haaretz in early September ahead of the Jewish high holidays indicates that 54% of Israelis believe in God and an additional 21% believe in a higher power, while 37% of Israeli Jews do not believe in the theory of evolution. Over half of Israeli Jews are convinced that the right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel stems from a divine promise, and 56% believe Jews are a "chosen nation."

In 1997, at an audience with the venerated Kabbalah scholar Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whispered in his ear that the leftists "have forgotten what it means to be Jewish." Netanyahu was not sorry that his comment was caught on an open mike and repeatedly aired by the media. The message that placed the leftist minority beyond the pale was intended to strengthen the affinity between the conservative right and the country’s Jewish majority, the same people who believe in God and an afterlife and regard the biblical pledge to Abraham as a real estate contract for a Jewish state between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan.

Netanyahu's campaign for passage of the nationality law, the bill adopted by the Knesset in July that anchors Israel’s nature as a Jewish state, is a modern-day version of “the leftists have forgotten they are Jews.” The months-long campaign in favor of the law placed its authors on the side of the Jewish majority that believes in God and in the divine promise.

In doing so, Netanyahu sidelined the (secular) leftist and centrist parties into the social and political margins reserved for the Arabs and other “Israel haters,” those who protested Israel’s definition as the nation-state of the Jewish people. That way, Netanyahu managed to blur for many Israelis the affinity of the center-left parties to the 1948 Declaration of Independence, in which the linkage between the Jewish people and the land of Israel is followed by commitment to equality for all the citizens of the state.

It seems that for many Israelis nowadays, "Jewish" is synonymous with "religious." So by advancing a "Jewish state," Netanyahu and his associates transformed the objections to the law into objections to the Jewish religion itself.

The future does not bode well for the center and left. The Haaretz poll shows that the young generation is actually more religious than their parents. Several findings point in that direction: the rate of young Israelis aged 18-34 who fast on Yom Kippur is significantly higher than of older Israelis — 84% compared to 66%, and to 67.5% among those aged 55 and older.

Two elements undermine the prospects of a resurgence by the left and secular centrists: demographics and the school system. The birth rate amid Israeli religious Jews is significantly higher than that of secular Israelis, and the number of ultra-Orthodox and religious schools keeps rising. At the same time, the Jewish activism of national-religious HaBayit HaYehudi, the party led by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, does not stop at the Orthodox school system. Reports of growing religious influence on secular schools surged in 2018. On Sept. 14, Haaretz reported that a state school in the suburban Tel Aviv town of Ramat Gan organized an event in April 2017 for 12-year-old girls marking their Bat Mitzva to instruct them in the Jewish ceremony of hafrashat challah, in which women separate a chunk of dough for the challah bread eaten on the Sabbath from regular dough. At an after-school program in the town of Ness Ziona, second-grade pupils were taught the Jewish grace prayer recited after meals and asked to say it.

In a bid to sever the link between religious faith and conservatism, the leader of the center-left Zionist Camp Avi Gabbay never leaves home without a kippa in his pocket. The leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party visited the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, wrapped in a prayer shawl. For now, there is no indication that such gestures will get the job done. In order to stem the tide carrying Israelis to the right, the leaders of these parties must look them in the eye and tell them that if they keep believing that only supporters of the Greater Land of Israel are good Jews, even God will not save the country from plunging into an abyss of apartheid, violence and isolation.

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